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Truth, beauty ... and responsibility

RESPECTFUL as Americans may be of the fine arts, they are far from convinced that art education isn't a luxury and an unjustified drain on taxpayers' money. For proof, one need only consider the fact that art regularly finds itself at the bottom of the list of subjects parents want their children to be taught in school. And yet art, in all its forms, has an almost infinite capacity to teach the appreciation of beauty, or how best to develop one's special talents - and in areas that go far beyond skills.

``Genuine art education,'' states Henry E. Putsch, director of the Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art, ``is about the nurturing and development of that which is most genuine and creative in individuals. It teaches the young to `see' rather than merely to `look,' to sense and perceive what lies beneath the surface of things, and to better understand at least some portion of their experience of the world and of life.''

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He adds: ``While not all of us produce art, we all need to perceive reality more clearly and comprehensively. And that's where art education comes in. By teaching that `seeing' is a creative act, it presents the young with a vital clue to a deeper and more holistic understanding of themselves and of their world.''

Dr. Elliot Eisner, professor of education and art at Stanford University, agrees. Since ``the arts represent the highest of human achievements to which students should have access,'' he writes in his position paper, ``Why Art in Education and Why Art Education?'' it is only natural that ``work in the arts develops unique and important mental skills.''

But art can have another far-reaching effect. It can challenge the young to give pictorial expression to some of their most vital thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and in a manner that stresses the value of clarity, authenticity, truth, imagination, and quality. It teaches them to conceptualize, to translate raw perceptual and emotional data into shapes, colors, and objects that communicate to others. Through art they can learn how to fashion paint or clay into an intensely personal statement that yet has universal applications. In this process they can discover not only how delightful the pictorial actualization of one's ``vision'' can be, but also how sensitively and responsibly one must approach the creation of art, or any other form of communication, if it is to be of any value to others.

Exposure to art and artmaking, in short, can have a social and ethical impact on students as well as an aesthetic or vocational one. Since art is more than a display of craftsmanship or ``beauty,'' and is, in fact, one of mankind's most profound modes of communication, the ability to respond fully to its qualities is to be able to exist, at least for a moment, through the perceptions, imagination, and sensibilities of others.

This ability to transcend national, racial, and ideological boundaries and to make contact with what is universal in mankind would, all by itself, give significance to the study of art. But art can accomplish even more, either by the example of its masterworks or by the study and application of its ideals and disciplines. It can plant the seeds of tolerance, for one thing, by providing evidence that, while truth and beauty may be real and accessible, they almost always appear in different forms to peoples of dissimilar affiliations.

But just as important, art teaches the young how to shape their perceptions and intuitions into forms that both embody these qualities and transmit them to others. It thus transforms purely private feelings and ideas into shared experiences, and even - if what is communicated is of sufficient value - into a dynamic and fertile form of cultural dialogue.

New-York based Theodore Wolff writes about the visual arts for the Monitor.

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